“Follow Jesus in Love”
John 3:14-21 (3:16) – March 11, 2018
Many people like sports. They watch football, baseball, basketball and hockey games on a regular basis. One thing that repeats on occasion at these sports matches, whether college ball or professional matches, is people who hold up signs featuring some important message. One message that keeps getting shown and broadcast on national television is the simple Bible reference of John 3:16. That is all. Held up to the camera on t-shirts, posters, and even more.
Lots of people are familiar with that Bible reference from the repeated broadcasts, but how many can quote the verse, word for word? Even if people can quote it, how many can go the next step and explain it? Talking about the context, the biblical situation, and the reason why the verse appears?
For that, we need to go back to the beginning of John chapter 3, where Nicodemus the Pharisee teacher and member of the Sanhedrin sneaks away to meet the Rabbi Jesus under the cover of darkness. To get a feel for how secretive Nicodemus is, imagine a secret agent or spy going for an undercover meeting. Imagine the caution and care that Nicodemus would be taking. If other members of the ruling Sanhedrin found out about Nicodemus and his hush-hush visit to Jesus, I suspect Nicodemus would be in big trouble. The Pharisees were not exactly best friends with the Rabbi Jesus, and some of them were extremely antagonistic to Him.
After some talk between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born from above, the Gospel reading for today picks up in the middle of the conversation. Jesus brings up an event that happened back in the book of Numbers. Eileen read this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for us this morning, too. Jesus breaks off talking about baptism and being born from above, and starts talking about Moses, of all things! Why change the subject to Moses in the wilderness?
The Biblical scholar Nicodemus understood immediately what Jesus was talking about. Of course he did! I bet he knew the Torah, the Books of Moses, backwards and forwards, and could even recite large portions of it, too.
However, the majority of us today do not have a clear understanding of this section of the Bible. Moses? A bronze serpent? Wilderness wandering? And of course, constant griping and complaining. It seemed like the people of Israel were forever complaining and griping. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other. Gripe, gripe, gripe, gripe!
Listen to John 3:14-15. “14 As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “ That is what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus.
Remember how I talked to the children today about healing, and how Jesus heals people? That was the situation Jesus referred to. Moses and the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The reading from the book of Numbers tells us that the people kept up their griping and complaining so long, and at such a volume, that finally God said “Enough!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it is pretty close to what Numbers records.)
I am sure all of us know somebody who complains all the time. I don’t mean some of the time, or even most of the time, but all the time. Complain, gripe, moan. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. The food stinks. The leaders are constantly wrong, and the people surrounding them can’t do anything right, either.
Wouldn’t that be annoying? Troublesome? Irksome? Even extremely frustrating? How would you feel if everything you always did and said was wrong? According to this really negative person, that is? Take that negativity, and multiply it by a lot. By thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Practically all the people of Israel were thinking, talking and acting like this. Negative thinking and acting. Some people refer to it as “stinking thinking.”
Reading from the book of Numbers: “But on the way the people lost their patience 5 and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can’t stand any more of this miserable food!” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” What an extreme reaction to griping and complaining!
But, don’t you and I act like that sometimes? Don’t you and I talk against leaders, and friends and families? Moan about the food and the accommodations, and complain about God and how we always get the short end of the stick? Gripe about how “It just isn’t fair! Why does that always happen to me? What’s the use?” You know what I mean. People who complain, gripe and moan. Maybe they even look a little bit like you and me?
Jesus reminded Nicodemus that God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. After the people repented and asked God to save them, Moses held up the bronze serpent high on a pole, and everyone who looked at the serpent was healed.
The truth about God and God’s purposes is confusing. Some people just do not get it (like Nicodemus, and like us, too). “Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.”  Nicodemus just did not understand the spiritual healing that God was holding out to him—and to us, too!
Sometimes, the world says “no.” Sometimes, God’s message of Good News just makes no sense to us at all. Sometimes, we are in the same situation as the people of Israel, where they got stuck in their complains and negativity. One of the commentators I consulted believes “the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. God “loved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. God “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.“ 
We all are familiar with the picture or representation of Jesus on the Cross. Artists in Central America turn this picture around, and paint crosses with pictures or faces of lots of people on them. What a cosmic understanding that our Gospel writer had when he insisted that Jesus was raised up on the Cross, and He drew all the people of the world to Him! 
If we look at this from Nicodemus’s point of view, “for Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew. “ 
Jesus did not draw not just you and your friends to Himself. No, Jesus did not draw just one particular region or country to Himself. Jesus also drew people of other races, other ethnicities, and other faith traditions to Himself. Think about that. Really think.
God so loved the world. That means everyone, in every part of the world. As the apostle Paul might say, God loves everyone: Jew, Gentile. Slave, free. Rich, poor. No exceptions. Including you. Including me.
For God so loved you. For God so loved me. Praise God.
Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015